Can teaching centres work?

January 29, 1999

The success of specialist subject centres hinges on their getting proper recognition and finance. Alison Utley reports

The drive to raise the status of university teaching, long perceived to be the poor relation of university research, is about to gather speed. Over the next fortnight decisions will be taken on a Pounds 30 million initiative that aims to stimulate improved teaching methods in each specialism.

The aim is to create subject centres that will promote innovative teaching within different disciplines. The hope is that academics will be more likely to get involved if centres are run by fellow subject specialists rather than by educational "do-gooders" - a tried and largely failed method.

The initiative has won widespread support, according to the higher education funding councils behind the scheme. But critics say that as the research assessment exercise fails to recognise pedagogic research, the initiative is doomed to die.

The new approach switches the emphasis to the teaching subject. It relies on lecturers seeing themselves first as subject specialists and second as staff of a particular university. It also recognises that different teaching methods suit different disciplines.

But Alan Jenkins, professor of geography at Oxford Brookes University and a keen supporter of the proposals, warns that the initiative will be "torpedoed" before it begins if it does not get proper recognition and financial backing.

"I very much doubt that in 2001 there will be any significant support to discipline-based pedagogy, yet that is what we need," he said. "If we don't get that and real money going to teaching then all efforts will go into the RAE, it is as simple as that." Furthermore, he says, many heads of departments have told him that they will discourage staff from using the centres for fear that any involvement will detract from RAE work.

Compared with the RAE, the learning and teaching initiative is small fry. The Higher Education Funding Council for England is proposing to make available only Pounds 30 million, part of which will pay for upwards of 20 subject centres that will have to provide comprehensive coverage of each discipline.

Final details will be decided by the funding council boards over the next two weeks. Bids will be invited from universities seeking to become subject centres towards the end of February. The centres could be in one place or be broader based networks that might be less vulnerable to the "not-invented-here" syndrome.

Core functions of the centres will include knowledge brokerage, networking and promotion of good practice in, for instance, assessment and development of learning skills, according to HEFCE's consultation document issued late last year. They will also focus on information technology-based teaching.

The way the disciplines will be divided up will be crucial to the centres' success. But with limited funds available, the danger is that too many disciplines will be combined, losing, for academics, the sense of ownership.

The Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers is getting a bid together. Director Rita Gardner believes much depends on how the disciplines are encouraged to collaborate with one another. "If this idea is going to work, it has to be inclusive with real ownership by the disciplines and I would be concerned if there were only a small number - 23 has been proposed - of centres," she said.

But the interdisciplinary areas will not be well served by a large number of discrete centres either, points out Madeleine Atkins, dean of education at Newcastle University and chair of a review group that reported to the funding councils in September (see box).

"We have to try to find a middle ground that reflects the way academics see themselves now and in the medium term," she said.


Most academics read journals associated with their discipline, but how many of them read journals about how to improve teaching methods? Not many.

Tony Becher, recently retired professor at Sussex University's institute of education and author of Academic Tribes and Territories (OUP, 1989), says this is because academics are firmly wedded to their individual disciplines, so much so that they display tribal behaviours.

"The predominance of discipline loyalties over institutional loyalties is quite blatant," he says. "Academic tribes tend to behave very competitively. They gang up on other tribes if they seem to be threatening their territory and behave as very close groups. They also, in true tribal fashion, suffer from internal strife."

He says interdisciplinarity can only be a temporary state, a series of one-off collaborations that sometimes create a new sphere of knowledge.

"Typically teams break up," he says.


The funding councils are considering a new Pounds 30 million fund to reward high-quality learning and teaching. Key priorities are:

* Additional student numbers for institutions demonstrating high-quality teaching

* Establishment of subject centres

* Further growth of the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning.


The proposal to create subject centres emerged from a review of two existing programmes, the Computers in Teaching Initiative and the Teaching and Learning Technology Support Network, set to be wound up at the end of the year.

The subject centres are likely to replace them with a wider remit, working on the theory that information technology can no longer be separated from teaching and learning strategies. Precisely how technology-oriented the centres will be remains to be seen.

The centres' proposed functions are as follows: n Promotion of innovatory teaching practice based on research in the subject area

* Sharing of practical experience

* Managing a network of departments

* Reviewing new teaching and learning materials within the subject context.

The funding councils recently commissioned a broad study of learning and teaching technologies in HE. The study found that two-thirds of institutions perceive under-use of computer-assisted learning and information and communication technologies as a serious problem, with the rest seeing it as a significant problem.

Most respondents did not feel able to deal with the problem, needing long-term external help.

Barriers to fuller use of technologies in learning fell in to three distinct groups: money, materials and mind-set (see graph).

The study found that more resources were needed for computer workstations, better connections on campuses and residences, improved compatibility, more support staff and more courseware and training.

Departments said that there was insufficient relevant high-quality courseware and that what did exist was expensive. Many lecturers did not have the appropriate skills to use tools well and to customise them.

The lack of applied research in to the effectiveness of different packages, plus the lack of authoritative advice on implementation, were further disincentives. Lecturers believed, for instance, that it took far longer to open up a multimedia package and check its suitability as a learning tool than it did to gut a textbook.

Unless the problem of technophobic senior and middle managers was tackled, the under-use of the technologies would continue, the report said. Without further commitment, it was unlikely institutions would develop a clear sense of direction for their learning and teaching strategies. "The institution would implement the strategy badly, would be unduly put off by technical failures, and would continue to exhibit versions of the not-invented-here syndrome," the report concluded.

Teaching, pages 29-32

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